The sight of the bus pulling off in the snowy, Baltimore night was enough to trigger a flood of sobs and despair in Esther Armstrong. Consumed by two jobs, night school and raising a daughter alone, Armstrong wanted desperately to return to the familiarity, not to mention the weather, of her native Ghana and abandon her dreams of starting a business.
Today, she laughs at the bus-stop episode and rattles off a list of accomplishments. She became a homeowner and corporate recruiter for FedEx, and watched her daughter graduate from Vassar College. Most important, Armstrong, 52, fulfilled her hopes and opened a Charles Street boutique specializing in African clothing and crafts.
It is the classic immigrant success story, with a twist. Armstrong is part of a growing crop of immigrant entrepreneurs -- women, according to a study by the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center.
Popular culture paints an image of the immigrant entrepreneur as a male breadwinner, an industrious owner of a storefront business in an ethnic neighborhood who cares for his wife and family, says Susan Pearce, a sociology professor at Towson University who conducted the study. While historically the numbers supported that depiction, Pearce's research shows today the percentage of immigrant male business owners has diminished while the ranks of immigrant female entrepreneurs has jumped.
Nearly 20,000 immigrant women business owners live in the Baltimore-Washington region, the fourth-most popular region in the nation, according to the study, based on U.S. census data and interviews with 20 women in the area.
As the region's immigrant population swells, women-headed nail salons, child-care agencies, construction companies and law firms have followed.
Pearce noticed the trend in conversations with members of her organization, called Global Women of Baltimore, a support network for immigrant women. Some were thrust into entrepreneurship by their families; others wanted the autonomy of being their own bosses and the flexibility to spend time with children.
Above all, many said the United States provided business opportunities for women scarcely found in their home countries.
"They were taking income into their own hands, so to speak," Pearce says. "This is becoming a very expensive society to live in. Just the knowledge that what they are going to pay you changing sheets in a hotel isn't necessarily going to be enough to feed your family and live in a major metro area like this."
She interviewed women from countries including India, Poland, Ecuador and Jamaica -- such as Baltimore County Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, who came from Jamaica and owns two health-care businesses.
Pearce's research also highlights a little-known reality: Immigrants become entrepreneurs at higher rates than native-born Americans, according to the census. In 2000, 8.3 percent of employed immigrant women were business owners, compared with 6.2 percent of native-born women.
"The immigration restrictionists are always trying to emphasize the costs of these immigrants coming to the country," Pearce says. "But there are lots of contributions that they are making when the come to the country as well."
Minority-business programs exist nationwide, but some cities have only recently begun tailoring such assistance to immigrants.
In Baltimore, officials have tried to welcome immigrants as a way to reverse the city's decades of population decline. The Immigration Policy Center, the research arm of the American Immigration Law Foundation, an advocacy group, sponsored a recent City Hall panel during which local immigrant and business networks offered tips on starting a business.
But when Armstrong started, she was on her own. The frigid evening at the bus stop re- inforced a tenacity ingrained by her family. Retreating to Ghana was not an option.
"You'd rather die than say it's too hard -- that's totally unacceptable," says Armstrong, her voice booming over the glass display case in her shop, Sankofa African Bazaar. "There's nothing worse than coming home because you can't make it. You would shame your whole family."
Armstrong came to the United States not by necessity but by choice. A college graduate and public relations officer for a bank in Ghana's capital city, Accra, Armstrong earned a decent living there.
But during a visit with relatives in New York, she reflected on Ghana's military government and the limits imposed on its citizens.
In 1981, Armstrong and her 4-year-old daughter moved to New York and, later, to Maryland. Over years of odd jobs -- nanny, dog-kennel cleaner, receptionist -- she saved enough money to buy clothing from a designer friend in Ghana.
After retiring early from FedEx two years ago, she opened Sankofa, selling a dizzying variety of items from ruby-hued Ghanaian shirts and skirts called, "slits and kabas," to ivory-colored soapstone jewelry boxes from Kenya.
Armstrong credits a business instinct that emerged about age 9, when she sold homemade taffy on the school playground for half a penny.
"I grew up in a culture where you made your own money," she says. "I've been a Mary Kay consultant, sold things from catalogues to my co-workers; I always had something on the side. I think it's in my blood."
Pearce calls the women she interviewed adventurous self-starters.
"There are certain personalities who are going to come to the States anyway," says Pearce. "They are risk-takers. They are going out on their own to come here and are sometimes chosen by their families to do exactly that."
Once Sheela Murthy launched an Owings Mills immigration law firm, she began reaching out to other women. Of a staff of 50, about 90 percent are women.
Murthy left southern India for Harvard Law School in 1987. After earning a master's degree, she planned to work at a major firm in New York, earn enough to pay off loans and return home.
But she remained, working in New York and later Baltimore, where associates frequently asked for her help researching immigration cases.
Murthy knew the process all too well, having spent her first 12 years in the United States navigating the labyrinth of immigration paperwork from student visa to citizenship.
She had to wait for a "green card," or permanent residency, before she could start her firm.
"People think it's so easy; all these people jump into the fray and stay in this country," she says. "No way. It's tons of money, tons of time, tons of months and years of sleepless nights not knowing if your approval for a visa or a green card will go through."
Though the beginning was tough, Murthy says she thinks the success she has achieved would be unattainable in India. The fast-talking lawyer doesn't mince words when she criticizes women's roles in her home country.
"No woman in her right mind would want to go back," she says. "The notion there, and so much of the world really, is that women are created on this earth to serve the man."
Murthy believes that people who complain about a lack of opportunity in the United States don't know how good they have it.
"This is the only country that if you work hard, you do well," says Murthy. "If you sit around, you get nothing."
Top job choices for immigrant women
1. Private households - 77,239 - 14 percent
2. Child care services - 51,807 - 9 percent
3. Restaurants and other food services - 46,519 - 8 percent
4. Beauty salons - 34,043 - 6 percent
5. Services to buildings and dwellings - 21,732 - 4 percent
6. Real estate - 19,236 - 3 percent
7. Grocery stores - 12,412 - 2 percent
Source: Immigration Policy Center and 2000 U.S. census